The patina of the paper is shifting from beige toward brown, but it is still supple to the touch. I lift it down from its place on the top of the bookcase, where it has found a home since our move three years ago. It’s my copy of the New York Times, VOL. CXLIX…No.51,254 dated Saturday, January 1, 2000. I picked it up in Penn Station at 12:45 AM that day on my way home from watching the ball drop at Times Square–the launch of a new millennium.
It was the one and only time in my life [so far] that I, who am as close to a native New Yorker as anyone, ventured into the Times Square New Years Eve throng. There seems to be an inborn reticence in NY natives to engage in any activity that smacks of tourism. Any activity that your cousin Clem from Iowa regards as a “must-do” while he is staying in your digs immediately becomes a “no-go” for a true native. Thus we have legions of Brooklynites who have never visited the Statue of Liberty they see out of their apartment windows, or attended a performance at the Met, or been in Times Square December 31st at midnight. Thus it took me 57 years to make the hour-long trip in from Long Island, where I was pastoring a suburban church. It was years before the notion of a “bucket list” became vogue, but I did feel that I should have the experience before I died.
But where there is a push, often there is a pull as well. I was attracted by the historicity of turn of a millennium and all the hoopla/anxiety going around. You may recall that there were expressed fears that computer systems would shut down because they had neither the programming nor the capacity to read a date that started with 20.. rather than 19..; a potential vulnerability called Y2k.
Microsoft and other makers of computer operating systems even sent out CDs containing corrective programs you could download to your desktop. As the date approached, the hype failed to diminish, with predictions of blackouts and signal disruptions and mass failures of the electrical grid. So I asked myself,”If such things are about to happen, where would I want to be when it did?” I wanted to be at ground zero, watching it all live, not on TV. So I started doing my research and making preparations the day before.
It was like preparing for an athletic contest in that you condition your body and your mind. I began a fast, especially from liquids, a slowing of bodily functions. I strategized the best locale for the wait, and alternate sites, set an arrival time target and read up on the crowd control rules. Thus, when 3:00 PM on 12/31/99 arrived I entered an enclosure on 7th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets dressed for forty-degree temperatures with a backpack containing a portable canvass camp stool, a rain slicker, a pack of granola bars, a thermos of coffee and my cell phone. The rules were simple. Leave the enclosure for any reason and there is no re-entry. You lose your place and probably wind up somewhat relieved, but six blocks further uptown from the ball drop. The subtext to that rule was, “Don’t drink the coffee until after 11:30 PM”. You could stand, sit or lean on the crowd fence, but sleeping on the ground was forbidden. I could have sold my camp stool for several hundred bucks later that night. I had mastered the art of the sitting snooze.
My particular block enclosure did not fill up as fast as those up or down from us. It was a reserved space for the party guests at the two hotels occupying that block and the dozen or so of us who showed up in the afternoon were shills for the elites inside. At 11:30, they poured out of the hotels, and the countdown began in earnest. Just before, I was on my cell with my oldest son in Seattle, who was watching it all on TV. Of course, he couldn’t quite believe I was actually there. It took the testimony of seven witnesses surrounding me and some crowd noise to make him a believer. The ball descended, the sign “2000” lit up and flashed and the crowd went wild.
The only blackouts were those experienced by one or two of the hotel party-goers. The gal in the shimmering green gown next to me remarked, “Gosh, it’s cold out here! I’m going back in.” And with that she and ten other companions bolted for the gates. It was 12:02 AM. Our enclosure emptied quickly and those who didn’t have hotel passes were shuffled over to the #1 subway line two blocks east. Trains were waiting at the platform and took off downtown to Penn Station, where LIRR trains were also waiting to depart east. I paused long enough to grab the Times before boarding and was back home by 1:30 AM.
As Cronkite used to intone: “It was a day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times.” And I was there.